Senate debates underage drinking sting

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(Host) The state plans to conduct undercover operations in Bennington County to catch people buying alcohol for underage drinkers. But on Friday, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee questioned whether the program borders on entrapment of innocent citizens.

VPR’s John Dillon has more.

(Dillon) State officials call the enforcement operations shoulder taps. Liquor Control investigator Tom Curran told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the idea is to use 18 or 19 year olds to work undercover.

(Curran) “What would happen is the underage person would be wearing a wire, standing outside a convenience store that has had some issues as far as furnishing issues, or whatever in and around the local area. Basically what the policy issue is – the 18 year old walks up to the adult and they’re monitored by hidden microphone into the surveillance car and they say, ‘I am 19 years old can you buy me some beer?'”

(Dillon) Curran explained that the shoulder tap program has been used successfully in California. According to Curran, the state would catch people who have a history of committing crimes.

(Curran) “It’s been found that 40 percent of the people arrested have a criminal history, and a lot of them are on probation and parole and it’s a criminal element we’d be dealing with. Plus we’d be dealing with any other criminal violations while we’re there.”

(Dillon) But senators questioned whether the program could cross the line to entrapment. The law usually defines entrapment as when police use inducements – such as money or threats – to get people to commit a crime. But Windsor County Democrat Senator John Campbell, the committee’s vice chairman, posed this scenario:

(Campbell) “Here’s my concern, and I don’t want to sound sexist by any means. If I get a young girl who is 19 years old, and she comes up to let’s say a 22 year old male, and there may not be any words spoken that is considered to be an inducement. But all of a sudden the 22 year old male may think, ‘Well if I go get this, maybe I can go have a beer with her.’ And I would be afraid of that happening.”

(Dillon) Bennington County State’s Attorney William Wright testified before the committee by speakerphone. He said he’s open to trying a pilot program in Bennington. But he says it should be tightly managed to avoid entrapment issues.

Senator Dick Sears, the Bennington County Democrat who chairs the committee, said the Department of Liquor Control should target people who are known to provide alcohol to minors.

(Sears) “As long as we’re looking at people who are furnishing alcohol to minors, I think that’s one thing. I think that doing it to the general public is quite another. I think it’s invasive and I don’t think- I certainly wouldn’t want somebody tapping on my shoulder, even though I am going to say no. I think it puts people in a difficult position. But if they have individuals who they’ve been keeping an eye on, just as if it was a drug deal, yes I think in that situation it’s certainly legitimate.”

(Dillon) The Department of Liquor Control wants to try out the shoulder tap program in Bennington County this spring, to coincide with the high school prom season.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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